Journalism has joined the list of endangered professions: teaching it appears to be more lucrative than doing it. A great deal of brilliant and high-quality journalism is still being pursued around the world every day, but the news industry is steadily shrinking. Why is that?
Let us make a distinction here between journalism and news. News is only one of the many kinds of journalistic output. News as a standardized, non-fiction literary form was invented more than 200 years ago in response to very specific social and cultural conditions, and was ignited by a new technology called the telegraph.
The invention of the electric telegraph in the 1830s allowed the fast and international transmission of bursts of information in short, staccato messages, which were, ironically, not unlike tweets.
Illustration: Mountain People
The telegraph brought news of elections, wars, disasters, crimes, weddings and deaths to people’s kitchen tables; it was how the world found out about the assassination of former US president Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
The arrival of instant news transported the middle class from a local perspective to a global one, from a generalized view of the world to one full of specifics, and from a world centered on fiction to one grounded in fact. News became how the middle class positioned itself in the expanding wider world and claimed a distinct cultural identity. This hunger for news was a cultural response to a prevailing sociopolitical environment.
Today, nearly every one of those cultural conditions has changed. So, if the context of what we called “news” for nearly two centuries has radically altered, is news still functioning as it should? What is its role supposed to be, and what purpose is it fulfilling? Is news still relevant at all?
We all know that today the news industry is in trouble. Weekday circulation for US daily newspapers, print and digital combined, fell to 35 million in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center — the lowest circulation since 1945, despite the population nearly tripling during those 70-plus years.
This year began with 1,000 job losses at once-burgeoning digital journalism ventures BuzzFeed and Huffington Post. News businesses have been grappling with imploding business models for more than a decade.
New Internet technologies empowered new players — mainly Google and Facebook — that have claimed control of distribution and the advertising revenue that goes with it.
Meanwhile, inspired partly by US President Donald Trump, politicians from Myanmar to Libya and from Syria to Spain now openly attack reporters, calling them “fake” or “biased,” accusing them of twisting reality.
The public, meanwhile, sees journalists as too soft on power or too close to the wealthy and do not trust what they perceive as conflicts of interest.
It is true that some serious news organizations have recently seen increases in paid subscription services. The New York Times has claimed to have nearly doubled its number of subscribers to 3.5 million.
Thanks to its reader funding model, the Guardian has received financial support from more than 1 million readers around the world.
However, subscriptions do not directly equate to readership; it is valuable regular income, but how many stories do subscribers read beyond the headline news? And how many renew their subscriptions? And is it, in the US at any rate, a temporary anomaly, a “Trump bump” of people who regard the cost as a monthly fee of the anti-Trump resistance?
Trump’s “America first” rhetoric coincides with a turning away from globalization and the faltering of global institutions and geopolitical aspirations, the closing of borders and the rise of nationalism.
News, both as a commodity and as a cultural invention, has also been affected by “deglobalization,” as evidenced by the declining coverage of international news.
By 2010, the frequency of foreign coverage in four British newspapers and the number of foreign news stories in the US had nearly halved over three decades.
Foreign reporting now tends to be limited to issues directly tied to national interests, such as war or terrorism.
“In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, ABC, CBS and NBC devoted a combined 4,828 minutes to international news,” the American Journalism Review reported in 2011.
“By 2000, after more than a decade of steady decline, the three networks aired only 2,127 minutes of international news during newscasts,” it said.
A decline that became noticeable with the end of the Cold War continued even after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the consequent global war on terror.
However, this shift away from a global outlook is both geopolitical and social. It is a move inward, manifesting itself in many ways, including technology.
I have written before about the decline of hyperlinks, and how consequently the Web reflects a cultural shift from outward to inward, from the global to the local.
Yet, despite this trend toward all things local, there has been no apparent surge of support for local politics or local newspapers.
A report commissioned by the UK government warned about the coming demise of local news without direct public funding.
The Cairncross Review acknowledged that “the stories people want to read may not always be the ones that they ought to read,” referring to the scrutiny of the local public servants.
In the US, local newspapers have consistently shrunk and, as Margaret Sullivan wrote in the Washington Post in 2017, are now on the verge of “extinction,” implying a lack of wider interest in local elections — and even in the process of participatory democracy itself.
If you asked me how the appetite for the “local” is manifesting itself in news, I would have a surprising answer: friends and family.
Facebook’s decision to prioritize updates from friends and family in the news feed was both a reaction to political pressure over the spread of disinformation, and a hint at what its gigantic global audience regards as the most valuable news.
Updates about births, deaths, marriages, babies and other family life events are what constitute local news for many people. The popularity of Instagram or Snapchat stories is built around these interpersonal audiovisual diaries about people’s lives.
Celebrity news is another way this “local” interest is manifesting itself. Perhaps we regard celebrities as cousins we do not see anymore.
News was never just about transmitting information. When we read news about climate change, or corrupt politicians, we not only become aware of the details of what has happened, but feel ourselves caught up in the drama. We take sides and we want our side to win.
As academics like Michael Schudson and John Fiske explored, news is by nature a drama with a calm beginning, a disruption at its core and the prospect of a resolution at its end.
Journalists want their readers to ask their partners or colleagues: “Did you hear?” They want to be the reason people talk.
However, that function is now in serious decline. Consumption of information has become a very individual act thanks to mobile devices. The days when you sat down to read a morning paper or watched an evening news bulletin have, for many people, passed.
Cinema, TV and, more recently, binge-watching on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon have slowly come to dominate the market demand for drama.
Just as in the 1830s, when the telegraph made reporting independent of time and space, and the production of news possible from anywhere, it was the shift to mobile Internet and smartphones that freed the distribution of news from the tyranny of location and time. Now anyone can receive news at any time and in almost any place.
This has led to a bifurcation. On one side, we have notifications — short blasts of information often directly from the newsmakers themselves.
Think of tweets by fire or police departments, politicians, or big companies. They are bypassing news organizations.
On the other side, we have long, collaborative, detailed and expensively produced reporting and investigations that can take months or years. This long-form journalism is far more expensive and in-depth than the news stories that have dominated journalism for a long time, functioning more like non-fiction literature.
What is left in the space between these two is an increasingly less viable form of news. Many newsrooms have spent the past decade pouring time and journalistic resources into churning out 800-word duplicate versions of news reports already available on other news sites. It makes little strategic, or financial, sense any more. Mid-length articles that are making money for some publishers are not news stories, but opinion pieces.
However, if buffeted by the twin forces of entertainment and propaganda, news is dying, how can journalism — and thereby democracy — survive?
I see hope in three narrative formats: audio — including documentary podcasting — video and non-fiction “literature.”
Radio, and the podcast in particular, is a hybrid medium. Word-based and therefore capable of empowering rational arguments and elevating serious conversations, it can also convey depth of emotion.
Spotify recently acquired two podcast firms and is planning to spend up to US$500 million on further acquisitions. The New York Times’ The Daily podcast has gained 6.5 million monthly listeners and increasingly follows a documentary dramatic structure.
No wonder the Guardian has launched Today in Focus, its own weekday podcast, produced by a former BBC documentary maker. Serious, in-depth podcasts and audiobooks are growing in popularity.
Video documentary is also gaining momentum. The combination of serious investigative reporting, opinion and dramatic structure is a promising sign for the future of journalism.
Just look at how many documentaries video-streaming services are buying or commissioning. Non-fiction literature is also doing well globally. Just in the US, revenues for adult non-fiction have rapidly risen every year since 2013 and has surpassed fiction.
However, the wider context is bleak. Human civilization seems to be entering a new phase we could call the “post-Enlightenment,” where rationality and the written word are being structurally replaced by images and emotions. Faith is replacing facts; like buttons kill links. Television is making a comeback, dominating every aspect of our lives and reducing it all to entertainment.
Journalism is not only seeing the news at its very heart taken out, but at a time when democracy is outsmarted by entertainment, it is at risk of losing its entire purpose.
The late media academic James Carey had a line for this: “Without the institutions of democracy, journalists are reduced to propagandists or entertainers.”
If, as Carey suggested, democracy not only needs journalism, but is the same thing as journalism, it should not surprise us to see both in deep trouble these days. We can only save democracy by saving journalism — or vice versa.
Hossein Derakhshan is a media researcher at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center and MIT Media Lab.
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